Saturday, November 29, 2008

Hopper at SAM

The Seattle Art Museum has a small but rewarding exhibition of Edward Hopper paintings on show November 13, 2008–March 1, 2009. It is called “Edward Hopper’s Women,” but it’s really not about women. Hopper often did feature women in his compositions but that doesn’t mean they are “about” women. The works are about spaces, inner and outer. I think curators make up such titles as marketing gimmicks.

The SAM show features only ten paintings, most of them familiar, as a lot of Hopper’s work is now. There are also a few etchings, maybe half a dozen or fewer, and some photographs he made early on.

I will need to go back to the exhibition to absorb it better. The day I was there the gallery was crowded, far too hot, and heavy with the smell of humanity. I could only take a quick look before my eyes dried out but what I saw reminded me that I still find Hopper mysterious.

The standard description of his work as sad, alienated, depressing, existential, etc., is overplayed. Often the pictures do show people alone, but I don’t think that makes them sad pictures. They don’t make me sad to look at them, and I don’t think the people portrayed are sad. They are simply alone with their private thoughts, in solitary psychological space, surrounded by a public physical space. Perhaps you can’t be literally alone in a public space, but you can be psychologically alone, and that’s what Hopper depicts.
(Automat)

Many of Hopper’s works have been described as voyeuristic, but I think that aspect has been over-interpreted. It is not a Manet picnic kind of voyeurism, but something more pragmatic. In Compartment C, Car 293, for example, we are not peeping. As the viewer of the scene, we have to be located somewhere.

Anytime you see a person taking a moment alone, in real life or in a picture, you are automatically a voyeur, because that person by definition, believes he or she is alone. If you were to walk up to the woman her countenance would change and she would engage you in some polite way. We are voyeurs of necessity, defined by the mechanics of portraying a person alone with their thoughts. It is a paradoxical voyeurism.
(Compartment C, Car 293)

That’s why Hopper often puts us at an odd viewing angle, to emphasize our psychological distance and benign intention.

Another recurring theme with Hopper is windows, looking into or out of them. Again I think that theme is commonly misinterpreted, either as straightforward voyeurism (looking in), or forlorn existential yearning (looking out).

Instead, the windows separate psychological spaces, not just physical spaces. On the subject’s side of the window is “here,” where the body is located. It is personal space, private space. On the other side of the window is public space, subjectivity's not-me alterity, the big world "out there."

Hopper is always careful to show us ingress and egress to the subject’s interiority. There is always a doorway, a stairway, a window; a route by which the subject arrived at his or her present location. The non-personal public space is often only implied, as it is by the roadway in Bicycle Rider, but a route is always there, even in Hopper’s later architectural and landscape works, because there is always a connection between private and public space.
(Bicycle Rider)

There is no representation or suggestion of sound in Hopper paintings, as there is, for example in Lautrec or Degas. Hopper paintings just seem silent. That’s because psychological space is as silent as the inside of your head.

In the Evening Wind etching, we are part of the woman’s physical space, actually in her bedroom, but we are not part of her mental space. We do not exist as far as she is concerned. We could even imagine that the dark bedroom is the inside of her skull, her naked body a homunculus peering out through the windows of her eyes to the public world.

(Evening Wind)

Even though we are in her bedroom, we are not part of the scene. If she were clothed and seated like the woman in Automat, looking out the bedroom window, we might feel we were having tea with her. But because she is so vulnerable, we know we are not really there with her. That isolates her and therefore it is her private mental space that is portrayed, not merely the physical space her body is in.

In Compartment C, Car 293, the window between mental privacy the the public world is the book. Through it, the woman experiences whatever world she reads about. She is psychologically not present in the same train compartment as us. Mentally, she is elsewhere. Compartment C was done in the 1930's, a decade later than most of the other ones. Maybe it took Hopper a while to realize that a psychological window did not have to be made of glass.
(Chop Suey)

Chop Suey is a beautiful picture for color and composition, but thematically, it is another variation. The women are immersed in the world of their conversation. They are mentally, not present in the physical restaurant.
(New York Movie)

I will have to go back to the exhibit to validate this insight about Hopper. He never said anything like this about his work, as far as I know, but artists often do not know from what wellspring their work arises.

But even if this idea is just me tripping, this is the kind of insight that makes me feel deeply connected to the artist, and by implication, to the rest of humanity.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Arvel Bird

Native American fiddler and flautist Arvel Bird presents a blend of new age, country, and folk music, interspersed with plentiful advice to follow your dream, live healthy, never give up, walk the walk, save the environment, and so on. I could have used a lot less homily and a lot more music, for he really is quite talented both on violin and flute (actually, the instruments looked like wooden recorders.

He uses prerecorded accompaniment, swelling and swooning strings, to “augment” his sound, which is totally unnecessary. He is plenty good enough to play straight folk and Native music, but he apparently knows what works best for him. Bird is well-recognized, having released a dozen CDs and was named Native American artist of the year in 2007. He has toured with Glen Campbell, Loretta Lynn, Louise Mandrell, and others. This picture is from his web site, http://www.arvelbird.com, where you can also sample his sound. He was wearing some kind of weird gypsy outfit when I saw him.

I caught him at Javalina’s coffee shop in Tucson, a mecca for regional talent. He performed with Grammy nominee Will Clipman, a gifted percussionist, who we did not hear enough from. Bird kept him strictly in the background. Bird’s act emphasizes the kind of Native American music that practically defines new age; dreamy glissandi and multi-octave phrasing. This is not hard core “Hey-ya, hey-ya” ceremonial music. We are encouraged to imagine a red hawk soaring, rather than to appreciate the music on its own merits, a disservice to both the hawk and the music. His style is at its best when blended with rhythmic country and even jazz riffs, but there wasn’t much of that. I’m afraid I do not appreciate new age music, but I was aware of Bird’s (and Clipman’s) considerable talents and wished I could have heard them cut loose. Still, Bird’s is a high-energy act worth looking for.

Javalinas' performance calendar is http://www.javalinas.com/calendar.html .

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

PDX Jazz Revenant


PDX Jazz has risen from the dead, thanks to Alaska Airlines, which stepped into the breach with a multi-year sponsorship. Thanks, ALK! (that's their stock symbol). Qwest will resume its major sponsorship too. Apparently, the city of Portland, OR was innundated by messages from shocked and bereaved jazz fans after the announcement of the annual festival's demise early last month.

The city council and a consortium of Portland indivduals and businesses came up with their own contributions to complement the major sponsors. Contributors include The Oregonian, the Portland Trail Blazers, Rogue Ales, Music Millennium, Azumano Travel, Amtrak, NW Natural, Enterprise Rent-A-Car and others. I know I will direct my travel dollars their way when I can.

The PDX Jazz announcement says, "The corporate and organizational support ensures that the 6th Annual Alaska Airlines Portland Jazz Festival presented by The Oregonian A&E will take place, as scheduled, February 13-22, 2009. As previously announced, the festival will be dedicated to the 70 anniversary of Blue Note Records."

I'll be there! (See pdxjazz.com.)

Monday, September 29, 2008

Port Townsend Film Festival '08

I enjoyed the Port Townsend (WA) film festival last weekend, even though I waited too long to book a hotel and had to settle for what was possibly the last room within a 50 mile radius, in a low end place that just barely met my wife’s minimum standards. PT is a charming Victorian seaport on the Straits of Juan de Fuca, fifty miles northwest of Seattle.

The four PTFF founders were veteran attendees of the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, which served as their model. The Port Townsend festival showcases new work and emerging filmmakers, and offers a variety of film education programs, symposia, and training offerings, including a film camp for kids. The Festival organization also maintains a film and book library in Port Townsend, available to members. See www.ptfilmfest.com/participate

The highlight of the festival for me was the first film I saw on Friday night, The Exiles, a 1961 documentary drama by writer and director Kent MacKenzie. It tells, or rather shows, the lives of some working class Native Americans in downtown Los Angeles, over one long Friday night in 1960. The hybrid film is part interview, as the characters soliloquize over gritty black and white scenes of themselves, and part documentary, as the camera just follows them around home and town, and part dramatization, as the characters play out little scenes in bars, on the highway, in their apartments.

The film was shown at the 1961 Venice Festival then immediately fell into obscurity. It was recently restored at UCLA and re-released, and it looks good. There is no story or character development. Rather, the almost nameless characters just hang out, existing for the sake of existing. The men drink beer in a bar, smoke and play cards. Two of them go searching for a poker game. Two others pick up girls and go for a joyride. One of the men’s pregnant wife goes window shopping and then stays overnight at a friend’s house.

The air is saturated with dead, heavy time. All the characters endure it without hope or ambition. One of the men says that he can “do time” in prison or out. It makes no difference to him. Relationships among the men are caring, but without adequate modes of expression become ritualistic. Women are not taken seriously at all. Yvonne, the pregnant wife, talks about how she used to pray every night for some change in her life, but after years of disappointment, stopped praying and going to church.

The film was introduced by Native American author (and recent National Book Award winner) Sherman Alexie, who also provided Q&A afterward. I asked him to comment on the sense of time portrayed in the film. On the reservation, he said, time is poetically cyclical. You live with the land and the seasons. There is always a sense of renewal. But in the city, the cycles of time are just crushing repetition. And poverty is boring. “I was poor,” he said, “and when you’re poor, it is the same shit every day. The same fears and worries and problems. It’s like being in prison.” I was stunned by the honesty, force, and depth of his answer.

He also pointed out examples in the film of androgyny among Indian men. “Indian guys are androgynous,” he insisted. “We are the ones who wear the red feathers and sing. And we cry a lot. It offers a choice for women. What do you prefer, a white guy grinding diamonds in his ass or a drunk Indian crying?”

You could see Alexie authentically struggle with his identity, a process obviously painful for him, but he seems to realize that struggle is also the source of his power and wit. He referred to an earlier time in his life when he could go places without “having to answer questions about Indians.” Now, he appears at festivals like this one, as “The Indian.”

I met him again the following morning and thanked him for his honesty, and asked him this time about the lack of ambition portrayed in the film. I told him I could not get inside it. “Don’t forget,” he said, "to have ambition means to accept the world of the people who destroyed you. In a way, lack of ambition, even drug addiction and suicide, are acts of rebellion.” “Are people really thinking that way,” I asked? “Subconsciously,” he answered. Again I was thrown into silence by the depth of his remarks. My wife came to the rescue and told him how she had read and enjoyed all his books. “Well, thanks,” he said with a smile. “You are helping pay for my car and put my children through college.” But what was on his subconscious mind, I wondered?

We shook his hand and let him be, and we talked about what he had said for hours.

Fix (2008) is another fictionalized docudrama, this time the story of a young man (Tao Ruspoli) and his girlfriend (Olivia Wilde), who try to get his wild, drug addicted brother (Shawn Andrews) into rehab before a court ordered deadline, to avoid a prison term. They also must raise $5,000 to pay for the rehab. The three of them buzz around Los Angeles trying to raise the cash, stopping to hit up acquaintances at Beverly Hills mansions, East LA, and in the Watts projects.

Throughout, the protagonist (Ruspoli) runs a video camera, recording their adventures. The filmmaking is good, individual scenes interesting, editing excellent, and acting more or less convincing. Unfortunately, all the characters encountered are stereotypes, even the three main characters, and little is revealed about them. I never did believe that the brothers were brothers or even that the videographer’s girlfriend was really his girlfriend. The whole thing was emotionally flat, just scenery.

There was a thin theme about helplessness. The younger brother is helpless to change his drug habit; the older brother helpless to control his brother; the girl helpless to affect anything. There is a transient segment about an urban farm in downtown LA that was once lush with food and greenery but is now desolate because of legal maneuvering: helplessness on a community scale. It is a good theme, but since the characters have no inner life, the theme seems didactic rather than organic to the characters’ experience.

There might have been a very subtle commentary about making documentaries, as if the story device of a character carrying a hand-held was the only way you would ever see “the truth” about the inside of a chop shop, an authentic Vietnamese restaurant, a marijuana purchase, or a heroin shooting gallery. But that seemed more an epiphenomenon than a conscious theme. Overall, the film is visually strong and technically solid, intellectually interesting and worth seeing, but not emotionally engaging. As a zero-budget indie, I don’t know how you could see it anyway, but I think it is good enough to eventually find some kind of commercial release.

Petals: Journey Into Self-Discovery, was yet another documentary, this time about the book, “Petals” by photographer Nick Karras (www.nickkarras.com). The “petals” are the inner and outer labia of female genitalia. Karras photographed over a hundred women to get the pictures in order to demonstrate the beauty of the female body (at least that part of it). Most of filmmaker Beck Peacock's documentary is given to reactions of women, and clips of various sex educators, such as Betty Dodson. The photographs find a line between pornography and medicine that could be construed as art.

The film itself is the mildly interesting story of the book’s creation, but its main point seems to be simply desensitization. All the slang words for the female genitals are discussed and women talk frankly about their sex education and early sexual experience. The film is thus like the Vagina Monologues in desensitizing a taboo part of the body. However, unlike the Monologues, the desensitization is not directed to the audience. Instead it shows other people being desensitized, one step removed. Consequently, I thought the whole project was a weak effort. However, in line for another film later, I heard a woman behind me describing “Petals” to her friends in enthusiastic terms. “It made me want to rush home and get a mirror,” she exclaimed. “I have no idea what I look like, and everyone is so different!” So, maybe my evaluation of the film is not correct – maybe it is powerfully cathartic for women viewers. What do I know?

A longish, 35-minute “short” film was Al’s Beef, a tongue-in-cheek homage to the spaghetti western by writer and director Dennis Hauck. Shot in Arizona, it successfully captured the colors, the heat, and the dry open spaces of the spaghettis. A taciturn and mysterious woman (Persephone Apostolou) rides into town and after belting back her drink, pays for a hooker. She immediately throws the hooker out of the room so she can get some sleep. Later, in the bar, she shoots a guy who hassles her, but it turns out she really just wanted his boots. She is searching for somebody and through a series of flashbacks, we learn why. There is the mandatory showdown gunfight.

The film captures the spaghetti idiom to a large extent, although the acting is too obviously comic. Unlike Eastwood’s nameless stranger, the woman seems more goofy than menacing. A lot of that is because most scenes were subtly off tempo. The camera lingered too long on the wrong scenes, and not long enough on others, and was too jumpy overall, so we did not get a sense of the woman’s emotional slow burn.

Toward the end, the narrative moved from a droll but mainly realistic style, to surreal farce. The woman takes five bullets in the chest and the result is only that it makes her limp a bit. The sheriff (Dean Stockwell) empties his pistol into the preacher, lifting him off the ground, soaring backward in slow motion. These elements refer broadly to the spaghetti style, but in parody. The sound of the gunshots was not right, although the music, consisting mainly of a tom-tom, was a fair approximation to Marricone’s austere style.

I ran into writer-director Hauck later that evening in one of Port Townsend’s charming bars and talked to him about the film. In contrast to my conversations with Sherman Alexie, I was unable to communicate with Hauck. After complimenting him on the film, I asked him if the timing was difficult in spaghetti scenes. His reply was about how tough it was to edit the film down to 35 minutes. I asked what was next for him; if he was he committed to westerns. He answered by talking about all the film festivals he had been attending to promote Al’s Beef. I asked him about the transition from realism to farce in the film. He said he thought there was a lot of humor in the spaghettis. I complemented him on the strong story idea, and he replied that it was inspired by Eastwood’s (1985) Pale Rider (an influence only microscopically evident).

It was a strange conversation. I was not anybody who could do anything for him so I guess I did not warrant a genuine conversation. He is from LA, after all. I did learn that he would like to make Al’s Beef into a full length feature, which I don’t think is a good idea, although I said nothing. I suggested he take a look at The Legend of God’s Gun, another recent spaghetti homage, but he said he never heard of it and expressed no interest. The guy is only late 20’s, early 30’s and I give him credit for gumption and a pretty good start to his career with this short film. I wish him well.

Off Off Broadway is a scathing satire of avant-garde theater production and a parody of Waiting for Guffman (1996). I never saw Guffman, so I took “Off-Off” on its own terms, as a satirical comedy, and it was successful. The aspiring but clueless and egomaniacal director hires a cast of naïve New York acting students to stage his 6-hour long play, which has only pre-recorded voices while the actors move about the high contrast stage in crypto-meaningful gestures, expressing the director’s commitment to “specific conceptualism”. The result is so far beyond bad, it is hilarious, perfectly skewering so-called “avant-garde” performances I have endured. Off stage the actors, crew, and director squabble and strut while the pretentious “making-of” video camera rolls. The humor is subtle and for that reason deeply tickling. Audience members, many of them obviously filmmakers, squealed in delight at the subtlest of inside jokes. The writer-producer is Jeff Huston. I think this one should find commercial release at least as an art house film.

Fashion Victims is a German project (subtitled) released in 2007. A middle aged salesman of “classic” women’s clothing is threatened by competition from a younger salesman who has a younger line of clothing that the older man disparages as “cheap fabric from North Korea” that no woman would ever wear. But in fact he is being out-sold. He cannot accept that times are changing, as he adopts a Death of A Salesman combination of bewilderment and denial. As the pressure mounts, he is mean to his wife and cancels his son’s vacation abroad to make him be his driver on the sales rounds. Meanwhile, the son falls in love with a slightly older man, who turns out to be the father’s competitor. The comedy develops as a blend of Marx Brothers and Keystone Cops as the “misadventures” continue. Secrets and rivalries are separated only by coincidental doors closing in time, crossed paths, and overheard conversations, conventions too hackneyed to be funny, although some audience members were hooting, so maybe I am out of touch. The gay romance between the two young men is also a well-worn theme, no longer the least bit shocking, but at least it is handled respectfully and is well-woven into the story. Strong acting and directing lift the film above mediocrity and the Blake Edwards-Peter Sellars kind of storytelling buffoonery will amuse many people. Co-writer and director is Ingo Rasper.

I also enjoyed the “2880” event at the festival. That’s the number of minutes in 48 hours, which is how much time the filmmakers are given to create a 10-minute short film after the constraints are announced. This year the constraints were that the film had to use the phrase, “It’s not over until the fat lady sings;” the required prop was a live animal, and the theme was “trust.” The top 6 entries were shown and although they were highly variable in quality, the scope of creativity was astonishing. They were remarkably well produced for such a short time frame, although they all seemed strained and contrived, which they were, of course. I thought that was because the three constraints were incommensurate. But I guess having them be utterly random can promote creativity as well as contrivance. It was a lot of fun to be in the audience with the screaming, whistling, and hooting crews who made the six shorts.

Well, that’s enough. I saw and heard other things too numerous to describe. Overall, I was impressed with the quality and scope of PTFF. It was awfully long on documentaries and docudramas, and short on feature length, fictional, dramatic work (compared to Seattle’s SIFF, for example). Still, the small town atmosphere is a lot more fun and the offerings well worth the effort. I’m sure I’ll go next year to the 10th annual, September 25-27.

Monday, September 15, 2008

PDX Jazz RIP

The annual Portland, OR Jazz Festival (PDX Jazz) has closed down, due to, what else, not enough money. In its five year history it brought to town such notables as Cecil Taylor, Gary Burton, Chick Corea, Ravi Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and many others.

Besides the loss of the music, it is sad to see the loss of the educational emphasis the Festival embodied. A lot of young people were involved. And of course, there is the economic loss to the city of 36,000 absent fans. The Portland Jazz Festival was nominated as one of the top five jazz events by the Jazz Journalists Association last year.

Is Jazz dying out in America? It is a hotly debated topic. Much depends on how you define “Jazz.” Still, I think it is indisputable that jazz is not as accessible as pop music. You have to train your ears or you can’t hear jazz. Few people are willing to put in the time to learn, pleasurable though that learning is. For anyone who wants to learn jazz, rent, borrow or buy the Smithsonian collection of classical jazz, 5 CD’s that go from the dawn of recording through the mid-60’s. If you don’t find a few items there that turn you on, there’s something wrong with you.

The 2009 PDX festival was supposed to be a tribute to Blue Note Records. But sponsors (many of them in the past were banks) did not step up this year. Ticket sales are never enough. So it’s over. I’ll miss it.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Barn Music

This was the 25th year for the Olympic Music Festival in Quilcene, Washington, out in the Olympic Peninsula, west of Seattle. All summer, there are multiple programs of chamber music presented in a large barn on a rustic dairy farm. The audience sits on bales of hay or wooden benches, or sprawled on the grass outside the barn doors. There are about 250 people in the barn, including up in the hay loft. CD’s, souvenirs, coffee, and wine are sold in the adjacent milking shed, as are carrots for feeding the nearby herd of donkeys, which mostly stays quiet for the performance.

The festival has been the labor of love of violist Alan Iglitzin, who for years toured with the Philadelphia String Quartet, which eventually took up residence at the University of Washington. In 1984, Iglitzin acquired the 55-acre farm and created the performance space in the barn. Performances in the barn are recorded for later broadcast on the Seattle classical radio station, KING-FM.

I attended three concerts this season. The first, in June, was “Beethoven – the Last Sonatas.” Pianist Paul Hersh, from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, played the last three piano sonatas, Opus 109 through 111. I am nuts about Opus 111 in C-minor and have several recordings of it. Hersh’s rendition was as good as any of them. But hearing the three sonatas grouped like this added a whole new dimension to my appreciation, especially from realizing how Beethoven “stole” or “borrowed” ideas from the earlier ones to populate the last one. I also understood for the first time why Opus 111 was his last piano sonata. Beethoven clearly said everything he could possibly say on piano, and needed more complex instrumentation to continue his breakout from classical tradition.

In July, I enjoyed a program of music featuring the cello, one of my favorite instruments. Amy Sue Barston, a widely traveled cellist on the faculty at Julliard, played with sister Elisa Barston, Principal Second Violinist for the Seattle Symphony. The Barston sisters began with Halvorsen’s update of Handel’s Passacaglia Duo for Violin and Cello, which was sublime. That was followed by Kodaly’s Duo for Violin and Cello, Op. 7, which was a little wilder. It reminded me a lot of the Kronos Quartet sound, because they play a lot of Kodaly (at least on the recordings I have). Even though this was just a duo, not a quartet it was a big sound that filled that old barn.

Finally, with Alan Iglitzin joining them on Viola, the trio played the Mozart String Trio K. 563. It is heresy, but I am just not a huge Mozart fan. I like certain works a lot, like the Jupiter symphony and some piano sonatas and chamber pieces, but most of his work seems formulaic to me. That is probably just my ignorance talking. Nevertheless, I am not complaining about a beautiful summer day in the country listening to world-class Mozart.

Scheduling problems kept me away from the “All Dvorak Festival” and “Quartet Masterworks” and many other temptations, but I did manage to catch “The Amazing Clarinet” on the last weekend in August. The program began without the clarinet, with Iglitzin introducing the Hayden String Quartet, “Sunrise,” Op. 76, No. 4. He was joined by Michi Wiancko and Alisa Rose on Violins and Paul Wiancko on Cello, in what turned out to be, for my money, the best performance of the afternoon.

Then Teddy Abrams, a recent graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory, and currently a student of conducting, came out. He gave an informative, but inadvertently humorous introduction to the Weber Clarinet Quintet Op. 34. His enthusiastic but academic and self-important introduction made Iglitzin unable to suppress a world-weary smile and the audience chuckled, to the bewilderment of the young Abrams. But his clarinet performance was no laughing matter. The performance by the whole quartet was extremely enjoyable, with Michi Wiancko and Alisa Rose, violins and Paul Wiancko, cello, joining Iglitzen and Abrams. The Wiancko siblings have both performed with Yo-Yo Ma. Michi is a member of the east-coast based Los Angeles Piano Quartet, and is also a singer and songwriter. Brother Paul is principal cellist of the Colburn Orchestra in Los Angeles. Rose performs widely in classical, jazz, bluegrass, and new music festivals and runs a conservatory of music outreach for disadvantaged violinists.

The Weber piece highlighted the sound of the clarinet and sounded surprisingly modern. I kept wanting it to break out to Rhapsody in Blue but it would take another 125 years for that to happen. The piece was showy rather than sophisticated, but was a good introduction to what a clarinet could do in a chamber setting. The program was topped by the Mozart Clarinet Quintet A Major, K. 581. It was not one of my Mozart favorites, although I recognize that Mozart is unquestionably a crowd-pleaser.

Next weekend is the season finale, with a Beethoven, Ravel and Brahms program and I regret that I will not be able to attend. Tickets to most concerts are only $27 to sit in the barn on a bale of hay, or on a wooden chair around and behind the performers. It costs less to take your chances with the weather on the grass outside. The Olympic Music Festival is a real Northwest Gem.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

PT Blues

Early in August I attended the annual Blues Festival in Port Townsend, WA. The festival took place in a WW II balloon hangar on an old military base, now a beautiful state park.

To my surprise, but not disappointment, all of the eight acts offered “traditional” acoustic blues from the deep south, and a selection of piedmont blues, a mid-Atlantic east coast style from the early 20th century that mixed black African and white styles. There were no amped-up Chicago sounds, no Kansas City crooners, no R&B, no rock or funk crossovers. I might have seen only one electric guitar all afternoon. Instead it was acoustic guitar, harmonica, piano, and the odd gospel singer. The festival was advertised as “country blues” and maybe I didn’t know what that meant, but the selection was excellent nevertheless.

Rick Franklin strummed a modern looking Dobro steel guitar (it looked like it was made of pewter or even hi-tech composites) and sang humorous country songs from traveling shows in the piedmont region in the early part of the 20th century. It was a good way to warm up the crowd with laughter, and his guitar picking was subtle, sophisticated and impressive. Sample his work at http://www.hokumblues.com/.

The reverend John Wilkins sang spiritual blues and used a steel slide. I love slide and was disappointed there was so little of it in this festival. Wilkins did have one of the rare electrics of the day but it was way over amped, losing much of the music’s definition. The sound engineer got that fixed about halfway through but then the harmonica was fuzzed out, so overall, there wasn’t much to recommend this show. There were two performers in the festival titled “Reverend,” and while both gave heartfelt performances, I thought they were more focused on singing to Jesus than on the music for its own sake, to the detriment of the music. Prayer and gospel singing is a part of the genuine blues heritage, of course, but I was there for music.

Mike Dowling played some very precise ragtime tunes on a mirror-finish, modern-looking steel guitar with sound holes in a mathematical grid up near the neck. The music was not so much foot-stompin’ but very professional and accomplished. Sample him at http://www.mikedowling.com/music/index.html

Jerron “J-Dog” Paxton (aka “Blind Boy Paxton”), got a huge sound to come out of a tiny guitar. He might have been using steel picks on all his right hand fingers. His picking was excellent and his songs light hearted. One I remember was “Po’k Chops Is Best!” an authentic snapshot of a certain way of life. His presentation was intimate, as if he were in a small bar instead of a thousand-seat auditorium. The audience was amazed when he put the guitar on the floor, turned around on the piano bench and played a very hot boogie rendition of “Exactly Like You.” Afterward, he remarked, “You should try that with your eyes closed!”

Ari Eisinger played some hot licks on acoustic and treated the audience to one Leadbelly number on a huge 12-string. His voice was a bit high and nasal, but that worked well for his renditions of several Blind Blake tunes. He also covered Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 version of Frankie and Johnnie, and it was interesting to hear it as a natural folk song. For example, “He done me wrong” is all sung on the same tonic note. Eisinger clearly knows the blues literature.



The Reverend Robert Jones opened with a very moving gospel song that kept the audience in a hush. The rest of the act, full of bible stories and prayers, “Lawd! Deliver me from the flood” kind of stuff, did not live up to that opening promise, despite Jones’ remarkable vocal range and a voice that reminded me of Lou Rawls. He did one brief harmonica number, a train song with lots of lonesome whistles. I am a sucker for those. He was joined by “Sister Bernice” who sang some gospel tunes that didn’t do a thing for me.

Cephas and Wiggins are a killer act. That’s John Cephas and Phil Wiggins, who have been playing Piedmont style together since 1977. Cephas has a deep but clear voice that he uses methodically, like an engine plowing through some terrific old blues numbers. His expression of emotion is subtle, but perfect, with well-placed grunts and moans that remind me of John Lee Hooker. Against that backdrop of barely restrained feeling, the Wiggins harp bursts out like a flock of escaping birds. The overall result is so expressive it makes you crazy. Sample some of this amazing sound at the bottom of the screen at:
http://facstaff.unca.edu/sinclair/piedmontblues/cephasandwiggins.html
Wiggins is also the artistic director of the festival, this being the final of his five year tenure, so we have him to thank for this fine selection of music.

Ending on a high note were Arthur Migliaza and Daryl Davis, two boogie piano players, who do not normally work together as an act, as far as I could tell. Migliaza electrified the crowd with a fast tempo rendition of the classic, Clarence’s Blues. Bowing off the stage, the young, thin, delicate frame of Migliaza was replaced by the hulking Davis who bounced into some wild and woolly boogie tunes, even resorting to the Jerry Lee Lewis style of slapping the keyboard now and then. Sample his work at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CmpgxPqh_m0 . After a couple of alternations between these two artists, they did a four-hand duet, fooling around as if they were fighting over the keyboard. It was great showmanship, great music, and the audience left the festival dancing on tiptoes

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

MOMA

The last time I visited the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, it was in Queens while the downtown space was being remodeled. The remodeled MOMA seems larger (I don’t know if it is), is much easier to get around in, and it shows more of the permanent collection. I spent one whole day there recently, which is only enough time to cruise the galleries, nodding to familiar old friends. But I did stop to think about a few items.

One was a gallery of Picasso’s sculpture. He is better known for his painting but this collection of sculptures highlighted his versatility, wit, and radical ideas about sculpture.

“Bull” (1958) is made of plywood, a tree branch, nails, and screws. It’s a great image from the front, but what makes it a radical sculpture is that it is almost flat. The whole point of sculpture is that you can walk around it to appreciate different points of view, and you can do that here, too, but what you discover is disorienting because it is a flat, anti-sculpture.

By contrast, “Guitar” (1914) is a sheet metal work hung on the wall, and from a distance it looks like a cubist painting. When you walk up to it, you realize it is not a flat painting but a wall sculpture. Curation at the MOMA is itself a work of art. You can’t help but notice the guitar high on a nearby wall as you walk around the flat bull in the center of the room, while the comparison boggles your mind.

On the topic of sculpture, I also paused at Giacometti’s “The Chariot” (1950) which I have admired for years. (An early prototype Segway?) The ancient-seeming bronze woman stands on a primitive cart balanced on wooden blocks. It should be unstable but I don’t get that feeling. She is compressed into a stick by the palpably massive air surrounding her. Or is she dessicated by time rather than crushed by air? I puzzled over the wooden blocks. Perhaps without them the feeling would be forward motion. On blocks, she is not going anywhere, the still air holding her eternally in place.

I was repeatedly amazed at the way works of art are displayed at MOMA. How they are shown can add entirely new dimensions of appreciation. For example, These two pieces by Malevich are positioned in a way that echoes the abstract theme of the works, a very nice touch.

Another work of Malevich, before he flipped out into that abstract suprematist thing, was positioned right next to a piece by Ferdinand Leger. It was a shock to realize how similar they were. Who knew?

I also had to pause and consider the relationship between Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Both are abstract expressionists, but from different planets. Pollock’s energetic, whole-body activity is recorded on his huge canvas, while Rothko’s works are serene, quiet, far away, even though you know he had to work just as hard to create them. Pollock is the body and Rothko is the mind? I especially appreciated what I call “the evil Rothko”, which was displayed in the center of a large wall, between two particularly “easy” works in harmonious pastels. The “evil” one is in harsh, angry colors and has a huge scratch through the center of it, suggesting fingernails ripping the paint off in a fit of rage. So Rothko had his moods.

Similarly, a collection of works by Rauschenberg made me reconceptualize what I thought of him. There were some drawings I never would have associated with him, and I was looking around for a welded pile of crumpled car parts when I saw “First Landing Jump” (1961), a typical Rauschenbergian collage of objects but which were arranged in an almost formal way that suggested a portrait of a 1940’s automobile garage. The colors, textures, composition, and especially the little light, took me to that place. I could almost smell oil on the floor. I think that white reflector at the top is my favorite part, because those old red brick garages always had a light like that at the top over the sign. (There is no brick and no sign, but I see them anyway!). A fascinating piece of impressionism.

A featured exhibit had the paintings and films of Salvador Dali. I am not a fan of Dali’s paintings but I was quite impressed at the creativity of his films, which seemed way ahead of their time. Modern art film makers would benefit from taking a look.

I greatly enjoyed the architecture and design galleries, but I can’t begin to describe the treasures there. Instead I will show just one selection, a carved wooden chess set by Josef Hartwig (1924) which perfectly illustrates that old design slogan, “form follows function.” (Click to enlarge it and see it better).

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Fiddling Around

On the Fourth of July, I attended The Festival of American Fiddle Tunes at Port Townsend, WA. This festival has been going on annually since 1977, to celebrate traditional fiddle music. In the week of workshops and two days of concerts (I only attended the first day), there were performances of traditional music from New England, Scotland, Ireland, Mexico, Alabama, West Virginia, and elsewhere.

The venue was Fort Worden State Park, an Army artillery installation guarding the entrance to Puget sound since the beginning of the 20th century. The beautiful 430 acres on a high coastal bluff became a Washington state park in 1953. Performances were in a huge, modern-looking balloon hangar built in the 1920’s, converted to a performance hall. Counting rows and seats, I estimate about 1,000 people were in attendance on Independence Day.

Wendy MacIsaac is a fiddler from Inverness County, now residing in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She played fiddle, piano, and performed Celtic step dancing in a lively opening performance. Sample her work at http://www.cranfordpub.com/mp3s/wendymacisaac1.mp3 . The traditional Celtic dance reels were compulsive toe-tappers, but as is the case with nearly all folk music, it was really quite narrow in its variety. To keep things moving, the 4/4 rhythms are often doubled and sometimes redoubled; small key changes relieve the monotony of the cadence-oriented, restricted tonal range. There are lots of gingerbread notes disguising a simple repetitive harmonic pattern of tonic, subdominant, dominant, tonic. However, MacIsaac’s show had variety and energy. For example, she was joined by David Mac Isaac on fiddle, and Paul MacDonald, also from Cape Breton, on guitar, who had a magnificent touch with subtle overtone management. He was quickly sucked into the foot-stomping dance music so we got only a hint of his sophisticated guitar talent. When MacIsaac took to piano accompaniment, she put a backbeat against the guitar and the other fiddle, again staving off boredom. So overall it was an enjoyable show.

An off-program duo appeared next, Beverly Smith and Carl Jones. Smith is a well-known singer, fiddler, guitarist, and dance caller, while Jones, also well-travelled, plays mandolin, banjo and fiddle along with his vocals. They treated the audience to some fine harmony singing with gospel numbers, mountain songs, and traditional country tunes. Get their recordings at http://www.smithnjones.net/recordings.html.

Harold Luce and Adam Boyce play old style New England dance music. They are members of a traditional dance music band that has been performing since 1934. I think Harold must be 90 years old but his fiddling was impeccable. Boyce, on piano, did all the talking, and he introduced the various traditional American dance forms, such as reels, hornpipes, quadrilles, and square dance tunes. They even played Stars and Stripes Forever. Luce’s fiddle seemed to be a particularly fine instrument with a real “fiddley” tone, hard to describe. It might have been higher pitched than others, and not scratchy, but maybe with a bit of fuzz at the top and the bottom of the range. It was a very nice country sound. The New England music seemed so controlled, spare, even algorithmic, after the other acts. Comparing them, I thought Luce and Boyce could be saying, “We’re from Vermont and this is as happy as we get.” The high precision was enjoyable, but it did seem a little methodical for dance music. I guess that’s the New England style, not overly demonstrative.

The final act blew the doors off restraint. De Temps Antan is a French-Canadian group playing regional and Arcadian Quebecois music, with so much energy you could hardly remain sitting in your chair. This 5-year old group consists of three young men, André Brunet, Pierre-Luc Dupuis, and Éric Beaudry, who play violin, accordion, and bouzouki, respectively, and all three sing, and play foot percussion, a sort of sounding board they stomp on while playing, often in complicated syncopated patterns, a technique called podorythmie in French. Dupuis does most of the talking, is the lead singer, and also plays Jew’s harp, harmonica, and concertina. The music was loud, upbeat, fast tempo, and energizing, with lyrics in French. In one charming moment, Dupuis explained that they enjoyed traditional call and response songs, so the audience should join right in! Of course, since the song was in French, few people could. The slower traditional ballads were in a less interesting stentorian mode. On the other hand, the high energy, high percussion music occasionally verged on rowdy noise threatening to overwhelm the sound system, which was not well adapted to their style in any case. The accordion was chronically undermiked, as was the mysterious sound of the bouzouki and the haunting Jew’s harp. Nevertheless, it was a fiddle festival, so one can’t complain about hearing too much fiddle work. You can sample their more articulate, Arcadian style at http://www.myspace.com/detempsantan .

I would have liked to hear some Cajun music and also some down home bluegrass, but from the small segment of the overall Fiddle Festival that I did experience, it was a richly varied and satisfying event.

Below: Wendy MacIsaac dancing (18 sec).
video